With every subsequent Marvel Studios cinematic release, comic book stories reach new heights in popularity, yet rarely are the tales of their storytellers told — in their own medium no less.
Pittsburgh-based comic artist and writer Tom Scioli began flipping that narrative with the 2020 release of his graphic novel, “Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics,” a biography of the illustrious Marvel storyteller. Three years later, Scioli is back with another epic: “I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee.” Excelsior!
“I’ve studied both of their lives just being a comics fan and being a comics practitioner — I was just very familiar with their stories to begin with,” Scioli says. “It just made sense to tell the story of Jack Kirby’s life, and then once I’d done that, a very natural next step was Stan Lee.”
“I Am Stan” depicts Stanley Lieber’s life from birth to death. It foregoes chronological order, instead showing the full scope of a life in the comics industry while spotlighting specific moments. Scioli adds that while the two works tell a complementary story, they are unique.
Lee aspired to be an actor when he was younger. His penchant for characters not only led to the creation of some of Marvel’s greatest heroes, but also aroused Scioli’s interest in Lee’s drier, career-based narrative.
“He’s a little bit mischievous. He’s a little bit like a P.T. Barnum in some ways: Very braggadocious and boisterous, but also funny and can be self-deprecating,” Scioli says. “When I was working on the Jack Kirby book, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be really difficult when Stan Lee shows up.’ I knew he would steal the show a little bit. How do I keep the focus on Kirby in the Jack Kirby book when this guy who’s very camera-ready just pulls focus?”
Now, with Lee at center stage, Scioli let the character loose. The book’s art prioritizes bright colors, exaggerated facial expressions and occasional psychedelic backdrops. One page features nine Warholesque portraits of Lee at different points in his life.
The drawings are a departure for Scioli, whose artistic style is often compared to Kirby’s perspective-based, action-packed illustrations.
The inherent differences between the two men’s lives also required Scioli to adopt different narrative techniques.
For Kirby’s biography, Scioli used his action-adventure chops to depict a stint in Europe during World War II. Lee’s life did not have the same inherent action, which challenged Scioli to leave behind his experience in fiction storytelling and meditate on creating a compelling, nonfiction narrative out of a simpler life.
“Mostly you’re doing these very human moments, these non-histrionic, day-to-day human interactions,” Scioli says. “Which is a lot more challenging, but it makes a much, much more rewarding reading experience.”
While Scioli ensured that each book’s style reflects that of its respective titular character, there are some design elements he carries between the two and to future projects.
“When I did the Jack Kirby book, I did have to put a lot of thought and research and care into, ‘OK, what does the 1930s look like?’ and then ‘What does the 1930s in New York look like?’ and then ‘How is it different from the 1940s in New York? And how is the 1940s different from the 1950s?’” Scioli says. “[These are] things that I, prior to doing that book, didn’t quite have a bead on.”
The 1950s is a major decade across both of Scioli’s biographical works. During that time, Lee and Kirby were coworkers at Atlas Comics — later Marvel — and created some of its most prevalent hero teams, including The Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four.
Before either of his biographies were published, Scioli had the opportunity to engage with Kirby and Lee’s work differently: Marvel tasked him with illustrating and co-writing the 2019 graphic novel, “Fantastic Four: Grand Design” — a recounting of the troupe’s history and famous stories.
“I definitely feel a kinship with both of these men and I think it probably is just that I’ve worked for decades in the identical field that they worked in,” Scioli says. “I understand the ins and outs and the challenges of sitting down at a desk with a blank sheet of paper and having to come up with something that’s going to be a comic book … even though they were creating their comics in different economic conditions, different decades.”
“I Am Stan” did not leave Scioli an obvious next step like his last biography did. Instead, he is headed back to his drawing board to get started on “a bunch of projects simultaneously.” One or two, Scioli says, will eventually build momentum and take off into his next big thing.